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We have only one WORLD yet! -- Fall 2001: 7th issue -- If we destroy it, where else can we go to?
Jive Talkin' with Arif MARDIN
"Man of the Year-2001"


by Mehmet DEDE



It has been a busy year for well-known Turkish music connoisseur Arif MARDIN:
He received a Trustee Award for Lifetime Achievement from NARAS, was chosen Man of the Year by the Nordoff-Robbins Music Foundation and re-activated his label Manhattan Records. On a sunny August afternoon we sat down in his apartment on the Upper West Side as he reflected on a prolific career as a producer, arranger, friend, and father.


“While technology has dramatically changed the way we now record, the song
remains the same. Things go forward, but a great song is a great song. ”



It's a hot day in the City and more so in the subway. I feel the heat wave hit me as I get off at 72nd St and Central Park West and land right in front of the Dakota, the castle-like building John Lennon and Yoko Ono used to live in. I pass by the building in a whirl, New York style, heading hastily into a high rise to get some cool air. The doorman announces my name, and leads me to the elevator. When I arrive upstairs Arif Mardin greets me at the door: "Merhaba" he says.  "Arif Bey?" (A commonly used title of respect in Turkish for men) I ask as if he could be someone else. I am a bit nervous, you can tell, after all I'm meeting the producer/arranger who has worked with Aretha Franklin, Barbara Streisand, Chaka Khan, the Bee Gees, Diana Ross, Patti Labelle, Jewel, Anita Baker, Phil Collins, Robert Flack, Donny Hathaway, and Dusty Springfiel, to name a few.  He wears a blue shirt , has khaki pants on and looks very down-to-earth. He ushers me into his office, an "exhibition space" of an epic career: scarlet walls are covered with shiny gold and platinum records, golden Grammy gramophones are beaming on the shelves, commemorative pictures taken with Aretha Franklin, the Bee Gees, Whitney Houston, Chaka Khan and countless others are smiling with sheer verve. There is a certain bliss in the air; I hear snippets of Respect. We settle in, still mesmerized I roll the recorder and let him do the talk, while I dream away.


Mardin made his way to become a teacher at Berkle

Mardin received a Trustee Award for Lifetime Achievement from NARAS,
was chosen "Man of the Year" by the Nordoff-Robbins Music Foundation.


"I was actually groomed by my father to join his business; he was partner in a petroleum gas station chain," he begins. It's hard to imagine where all the hits he produced/arranged would have gone had he stayed in the family business. Arif Mardin was born into a renowned family that produced statesmen, diplomats and leaders in the civic military and business sectors of the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic. He studied at the Faculty of Economics & Commerce in Istanbul and later attended the London School of Economics. But all this while he was an avid jazz fan, influenced by his oldest sister's records. "We didn't listen to Turkish music at home, it was all American music. We loved Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies," he remembers. "I was ten years old when I bought my first Duke Elington record. So, the music was always there."

Upon sensing some talent for his son's nascent love of music, his mom took him to a piano teacher. "I wasn't a good piano player, but I used that energy and knowledge to pick notes and write tunes," he fondly remembers. So when Dizzy Gillespie's orchestra came to Turkey in 1956, he got acquainted with the trumpet player of the orchestra a certain Quincy Jones. He later sent him a tape of three of his compositions (recorded with funding from the Voice of America). Quincy Jones was so impressed that he became the first recipient of the Quincy Jones Scholarship at the Berklee College of Music in Boston where he developed the necessary skills to produce and arrange and learned the nuts and bolds of harmony, composition, and orchestration. The year was 1958.

Four-five months into his marriage with Latife Hanim, the newly wed couple moved to Boston. "Coming from a comfortable life, cafe-society in Istanbul, we ended up in a primitive surrounding, living in a small one bedroom apartment and sharing the bathroom with others," he recalls. With gritty determination, Arif Mardin made his way to become a teacher at Berklee (he would later receive an honorary doctorate from the same institution). He met Nesuhi Ertegun at the Newport Jazz Festival and one day Ertegun called him up and asked him if he would like to become his assistant. Since his dream was to have his compositions and arrangements played, the couple moved to New York and Arif Mardin joined a small fledgling label called Atlantic Records in 1963. "I had entered the world of rhythm & blues and pop of the 60s."

Arif Mardin began a fruitful relationship with Atlantic that would see him work with them  for more than thirty years. "I became studio manager, managing bookings, check test pressings, quality control. Eventually my bosses recognized that I was an arranger as well and I was assigned to the Young Rascals what was then known as a co-supervisor with engineer Tom Dowd." He hit paydirt with the Rascals when "Good Loving" shot straight to Number 1. "I got bitten by the pop world, so jazz went to the back burner" he remembers.



"You have to believe in what you're doing."

“Producing today is not how we used to do it. ...Go and find live musicians, make
a budget, arrangements this and that. Today it is more the DJ, the sampling guy."



Atlantic Records was founded by Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson in 1948. When Mardin joined, the label had made a name by releasing great jazz records. "Atlantic"s sound was very very avant-garde at that time, extremely hip," he declares. "They almost went bankrupt because Ahmet Ertegun wanted to record jazz." To cater to a wider audience a palatable music, they expanded into rhythm & blues. Out came an incredible roster of the likes of Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, and Solomon Burke. Atlantic became a purveyor of R&B and soul music. In fact when the Rolling Stones were looking for an American record deal, they wanted to sign with Atlantic partly because of the distinguished roster the company had built. "The Ertegun brothers' love of music was sincere," Mardin says. "If it's jazz, its the greatest jazz; if it's cabaret, it's the best cabaret." Their work ethic and music business know-how was very significant. Atlantic got the cold shoulder from other labels when they first implemented a new royalty structure for old musicians. They were known as a musician friendly label.


“After every music session at the studio the label had to pay a certain union fee” Mardin adds. "You could withhold those checks an extra week and make money at the bank off the interest because the union’s penalty at that time was much lower than what the interest rate would bring. But at the end of the day, the poor musicians wouldn’t get paid another week. The Erteguns’ instruction to the Bookkeeping Department was ‘Do not delay the musicians’ checks.’ It was all camaraderie.”


Atlantic had very talented session men and knowledgeable staff that included producer Jerry Wexler, engineer Tom Dowd and arranger Jess Stone. “Tom Dowd was a pioneer" Mardin emphasizes. He forced the owners of Atlantic to buy an 8-track AMPEX machine at a time when there were only a few, even in the US. “Because you recorded the music simultaneously on the 8-track, when stereo came he was able to go back and do the mixes again,” he continues “whereas most people used to do fake stereos.” Under Dowd’s supervision he began mixing songs, in addition to composing and arranging. “Aretha Franklin’s ‘Amazing Grace’ gospel album, that was a challenge” he notes. “You had the audience, you had applause. You had to edit, cut, shorten. It was very rewarding.”

Arif Mardin was also able to propel some artists’ careers at pivotal points. Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees credits Mardin for helping create the band’s signature falsetto vocal style and revitalizing their sound into a dance/R&B sound. “We were working in the studio and having a good time when Ahmet Ertegun and Robert Stigwood, then manager of the Bee Gees, came and said ‘Wow, this is great, very danceable.’ We were making dance music? We didn’t even know! But we definitely had a 120 bpm going on” he explains.

After a string of commercially successful albums in the 60s, the Bee Gees began to lose touch with the mainstream. Their friend Eric Clapton advised them to go to Miami to get some fresh ideas. When Arif Mardin was consulted in 1972 for the new project he advised them to listen to cutting edge artists of the day like Stevie Wonder. Mardin was aware from the very beginning that they needed to use this new instrument they called the synthesizer. So he got a state-of-the-art Arp 2600 synthesizer, and with the beautiful melodies and hooks of the Bee Gees came the hit Jive Talkin’ and the parent album Main Course. Not only was it a pre-requisite to the upcoming sound of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, the album also introduced the famous falsetto of Barry Gibb. “During the recording of the album I asked Barry to take his vocal up one octave” Mardin remembers. “The poor man said ‘If I take it up one octave I’m going to shout and it’s going to be terrible.’ He softened up a little bit and that’s how their falsetto was born.”


“Producing today is not how we used to do it”


Arif Mardin’s empirical sounds that came out of long studio sessions became his cachet, although his wasn’t a signature sound like Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” (“You might say that my works sound like an Arif Mardin production because I work with so many different artists. I think the artists usually get the focus. My productions don’t have my thumb print, so to speak” he admits candidly.)


“Producing today is not how we used to do it” he continues. “Go and find live musicians, make a budget, arrangements this and that. Today it is more the DJ, the sampling guy. Some of them don’t even play instruments, they have thin ears.” But still Arif Bey does not detest ‘the bedroom musicians.’ “They have a certain vision, they know what the soup de jour is” he contends.” For him, intrinsic merits such as perseverance, sincerity and honesty need to be in place to have a great record. “You have to believe in what you’re doing,” he concludes.

Arif Mardin with Donny Hathaway (1973). This photo was taken
for an Aretha Franklin session for "Until You Come Back To Me"
where he was playing electric piano.



So what does he think of today’s insular and overexposed R&B market? “Today’s R&B records have very few meaningful high notes or adlibs, it’s just formulaic singing. Is there an Aretha Franklin today?” he asks rhetorically. He does, however, pick out a few names such as Rufus Wainwright and Lucinda Williams (he calls them “my esoteric choices”). He likes the harmonies of boy bands like N’Sync and the Backstreet Boys. He also appreciates bona fide singing a la Maxwell, Jill Scott and Brian McKnight.



Arif Bey’s a man without any pretensions. When he speaks of his own achievements he talks third person singular and quotes others. “There’s no place for ego in any job for me. The moment you think you’re the greatest, forget it” he firmly states. No wonder he earned the respect and admiration of so many people.


He talks of his career with such clarity you know you are dealing with someone professional. He doesn’t stumble upon years and names, it’s as if he already studied every question and answer. He is more easy-going than many artists I have had to chance to interview in the past. My admiration multiplies.


I look for something unmistakably Turkish. Arif Bey’s nickname among his friends is Pasha, an honorary title given to officers of high rank in Turkey. His strong and clear voice underscores his presence. His stern and sober persona coupled with a sincere gesture of smile conveys that sort of babacan feeling that is so Turkish, and rare to find.


Since the US market became his home turf, I wondered if he had worked with any Turkish artists. “It happened once,” he remembers. “A family friend called Humeyra. Before she became famous she played a song for me on the guitar at a family gathering. The song was called ‘Yol,’ it was around 1966-1967. We went to a studio in Tunel, and recorded the track in mono, with one microphone. I took the tape with me, overdubbed the musicians onto the 8-track, mixed it and sent it back to her. It became a hit.”


Although he’s living in the US, he has ties to the Turkish music industry and observes sessions whenever he’s in Turkey. “Turkish musicians are great, there are many great studios” he explains. “It’s not like 1967 when I had to find a mono studio. In those days, we would finish our take and Turkish alaturka musicians would come – you know, the darbuka guy gulping shish kebap and everything!”


Turkish pop music’s track record on the European charts were almost non-existent until a couple of years ago when Tarkan finally made the big jump from being a local superstar to that of an internationally recognized name with the song “Simarik.” So how come in so many years we only had one Turkish artist cross over to Europe? “Language,” he replies plainly. “You have to live in the country you plan to make hits and sell records. You start by playing in small bars, find a manager who believes in you. Do a tour, play small venues. Have a great song, then a record company is interested. Now you have a build in audience. You can’t just come in, as they say in Turkish, tepeden konma. It’s impossible. Now, Tarkan’s success was that he was able to break his songs in the dance community in France and Belgium. Language, somehow, was not a barrier.” Several years ago Ahmet Ertegun had signed Tarkan to release an album in the US. So far the project has not yielded anything significant and Tarkan still enjoys a high profile career in Turkey.


Throughout his forty-plus year career, Arif Mardin has collected over forty gold & platinum albums, garnered over 15 Grammy nominations and received six Grammy awards. He became Vice President of Atlantic in 1969 and served as Senior Vice President for many years until recently. “I’m officially retired from Atlantic Records today,” he says happily. “I’m looking for projects that I can enjoy at this age like jazz, or esoteric projects. I want to make that project cross over and become commercial.” Once again I’m amazed by his energy and enthusiasm when he speaks of new projects.


The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) has honored Arif Mardin with Trustee Award for a Lifetime of Achievement in Music this year. The Nordoff-Robbins Music Foundation has chosen him “Man of the Year (2001).” He is also the recipient of the Ertegun Impact Award, given to honor music professionals who have made a lasting, significant impact on the music industry. “This year has been very busy for me: Grammy awards, The Nordoff-Robbins Music Foundation award etc. All this time my wife Latife had written a play that was produced off Broadway for two months. My daughter Julie had two exhibitions in New York and one in Istanbul, while my son Joe produced and wrote a Techno piece for his sister’s show. It has been already a rewarding year for me.”



"The youth will make a change."



Arif Bey is working on his memoirs these days, with the hope to have it out by the end of 2002. He is also in the process of compiling a slice of his works on two CDs. An accompanying concert in New York with an all-star line up is also in talks. He wants to finish the last 16 bars of his one act opera that already had a two week run off Broadway. “Gurel Aykal from the Ankara,” he pauses searching for the right phrase “the Cumhurbaskanligi Orkestrasi, may do a concert version of the play in Ankara” he adds. He also reveals that he would be working with Sezen Aksu, one of Turkey’s most prolific singer/songwriters since the 70s.


After our interview he shows me an illustration from a French newspaper published in the late 19th century hanging in the midst of his trophies. The picture depicts a man in the middle representing the Ottoman Empire, pulled in opposite directions by two men, one of them the fundamentalist, the other the liberal. Fast forward to the 21st century, swamp the Ottoman Empire with the Turkish Republic, and how ironic is it that this picture is still relevant? “The youth will make a change” he says with hope. As I leave the room the famous phrase from Ataturk’s address to the Turkish youth blazes in my head:

“Turkish Youth! Your first duty is to forever preserve and defend Turkish Independence and Turkish Republic. You will find the strength you need in your noble blood.”
Mustafa Kemal ATATURK

Founder of the Turkish Republic
Ankara, Oct. 20, 1927

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More...
My dad's Philosphy on Fatherhood

Profile of Arif MARDIN
Profile of Mehmet DEDE

This issue is dedicated to such distinguished artists and author as (alphabetical order):
We will be celebrating the second anniversary with the Winter-2002 issue. Deadline: January 7, 2002
This e-magazine is under the umbrella of The Light Millennium, Inc.,
which was granted a NOT-FOR-PROFIT organization
status based in New York since July 17, 2001.

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@ The Light Millennium e-magazine was created and designed by Bircan ÜNVER. 7th issue. Fall 2001, New York.
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